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Aviation overhaul bill passes US House... for the third time

Maybe it'll be different this year as clamors of 'I told you so' accompany the proposal

The US House of Representatives has voted overwhelmingly to advance a bill that would create a task force to improve the Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system that was at the heart of the nationwide flight grounding earlier this month.

Don't go thinking that NOTAM Improvement Act of 2023 will guarantee action, though. The bill's sponsor, Minnesota Republican Representative Pete Stauber, has introduced the same bill for the past two congressional sessions.

NOTAMs are used to relay last-minute information to flight crews that could affect their routes, like a change in conditions at an airport, a surprise storm or other phenomena that endanger the flight.

The 2021 and 2019 versions both passed the House as well, but fizzled out once they reached the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. This year, though, things are a bit different – the US just had its first nationwide flight grounding since September 11, 2001.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was forced to ground all US departures for several hours on January 11 because NOTAM went offline. The cause was later revealed to be a pretty serious mistake on the part of some contractors working to fix a synchronization issue between the live and backup copies of the database.

In the process of working on their "fix," said contractors grounded 11,000 flights by deleting some rather important files. Per Reuters, the FAA identified the contractors as being from IT services firm Spatial Front, which The Register contacted for confirmation, but hasn't heard back.

The FAA said in a letter to lawmakers seen by the newswire that all Spatial Front employees directly involved in the deletion had their access to FAA buildings and systems terminated.

Third time's the charm?

If this latest version of Stauber's bill makes it through the Senate, the FAA will be directed to create a task force of air carriers, labor unions, aviation businesses, and safety and security experts to review and recommend improvements to the NOTAM system.

Speaking of outages

Southwest Airlines, which was at the center of a widespread scheduling disruption over the holidays that stranded thousands, predicted first quarter losses because travelers appear to be avoiding the budget flyer.

"Thus far in January 2023, the company has experienced an increase in flight cancellations and a deceleration in bookings, primarily for January and February 2023," Southwest said yesterday. Additionally, extra man hours invested in dealing with the December meltdown mean non-fuel operating costs will be considerably higher in Q1 too. 

The airliner today reported preliminary calendar Q4 results that show it made a $220 million net loss. Bob Jordan, CEO and President pinned this on "pre-tax negative impact of approximately $800 million" caused by the cancellation of 16,700 flights.

"Based on current revenue and cost trends, we currently expect a first quarter 2023 net loss," he added.

In a statement along with his introduction of the 2021 version of his NOTAMs bill, Stauber said he had spoken with a number of pilots over the years as a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and said several have expressed concerns about NOTAM.

Of the outage in January, Stauber said when he introduced the latest bill the day after that the incident came as no surprise.

"Yesterday's failures show the urgent need for updates and improvements to the Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) system to keep air traffic moving safely in our skies," Stauber said. Of its passage to the senate, Stauber said he hopes "the Senate acts and passes this important legislation to help ensure another NOTAM system failure does not occur."

Stauber's office didn't immediately respond to requests for additional information.

US Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Shelly Moore Capito (R-WV) have introduced companion legislation in the Senate, but the bill doesn't appear to be publicly available yet.

"It is imperative that a group of aviation experts be assembled to look at ways to improve this vital safety system. That's exactly what our legislation would do," Capito said. ®

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